Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
Your protagonist is racing down dark streets, chased by rapscallians on horseback, ruffians on motor bikes, a mad scientist in a stealth helicopter.
Which scenario fits your story? You probably know the characters pursuing your hero, but have you given equal attention to their props? To their setting? To the social and political and historical details of their lives?
If you haven’t, you should.
Readers find it more than annoying to be rolling along with the fiction, lost in the action and characters, only to be stopped by an object or event or social practice not common to the setting of a story.
Are your female characters all women-libbers—in the Seville of 1792?
Do your kids use Velcro in 1939?
Do your Regency men strike safety matches pulled from a match box with an attached strike plate?
If your characters do any of these things, they’re doing the impossible. At least for the era or the date of your story.
This article is a reminder for writers and editors to check facts and dates, to check setting details and social practices and character attitudes against the available products and practices and attitudes of a story’s date and locale. We take care to choose words to fit plot and characters and genre; we also need to take the same care fitting detail—facts and dates and inventions and products—to our story date and place.
You may think of other categories of facts to check, other specific details, but I’ve listed a few to consider, especially if you place your story in a time or country (even a region) different from your current date and location.
If you mention historical events, verify the dates.
Verify, also, that your characters could know of events of their era. That is, before modern communication abilities, news traveled slower. Would your characters know of events from across the globe? Would they care about them?
Methods for dating
Do your characters follow the modern calendar? An older calendar? Do they use religious references (feast days and so forth) to keep track of time rather than using months and days of the week?
Events/News of the day
What was happening in your time period and location that would affect your characters? A worldwide flu epidemic might be known to your character, might affect him. A prize for an invention, earned halfway around the world, may mean nothing.
Include what would be known to your characters, not necessarily what is known to you looking back on historical events.
Do the animals of your locale fit? Were they a presence in the era you’ve put them in? Or, if animals were missing for some reason, have you noted that in your story?
Which animals were domesticated in your story era?
National boundaries/country names
Are your country names correct for the story dates? Some countries go through turbulent times, with names changing as often as leadership does. Make sure your country names fit your dates.
Country boundaries change during war and through other events. Make sure areas in your stories are in the country you’ve said they’re in on the date you’ve used.
Do your characters think of their country or their people by one name while outsiders refer to them by another name? This is a common practice. Use the country name each character would use.
Growing seasons and produce
Check growing seasons in your setting. What crops grow on the farms in that setting? What fruits are available in the wild? When are the different crops harvested? Who does the harvesting and what tools are available to them? What harvest rituals are followed?
Did your story location ever face natural disasters? Do any of those disasters happen during your story? How did they affect the area afterwards—what changes did the people make as a result of those disasters? What was life like before the catastrophe? Do characters think of the earlier times, try to return to them?
Imagine New Orleans before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina. Imagine Pompeii before, during, and after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.
What products are available to your characters? Where are those products in the product cycle? Are they new and novel to your characters? Do they marvel over them or use them without thought? Which products are used by the poor, which by the wealthy? Think in terms not only of era but of locale.
When you’re checking the availability of your products, remember to consider—
Types/Sources of foods
What foods are available to your characters? In what form is that food available—raw, fresh, frozen, packaged? Do characters have to hunt?
What food storage options are available? Consider markets, grocery stores, inns and restaurants. Who prepares the food?
Do characters make their beer, grow grapes for wine? Is there fresh water? Who, if anyone, drinks milk?
What are phrases common to the era? Which cuss words are appropriate? Which words would fit your characters but date your story? Would you be better off using less slang?
Remember corporate speak and jargon—use words to flavor the story but don’t overburden your characters or readers with too much of a good thing.
What news sources are available to your characters? What magazines do they read? How did news travel in the days before television and the Internet?
What TV shows, movies, books, and games are known to your characters? What do they do for fun?
Are sports used for exercise, as training for war, to keep the masses entertained, or simply for fun?
What games of chance are popular in your era? Who is permitted to participate?
What was known of the sciences in your era? Would your characters have known of them?
Are your characters up on the social issues of their era and setting? Would they be?
What languages do your characters speak? Were they actually spoken in the locale and era of your story? Were languages both written and spoken? How do neighboring tribes converse? Is there both a common tongue and a formal or restricted language?
Keep in mind regional or group differences, even within same language groups. Which would your characters drink—pop, soda, drink, Coke, soda pop.
Is the political situation stable or undergoing turmoil? Is it even a factor in the story? If it isn’t, did something so momentous happen in history that your characters should be affected by it?
Are there alliances within governments or between nations that should influence the events of your story?
Types of governments
Do your characters live under a monarchy, republic, democracy, dictatorship, or under tribal leaders ?
What treaties existed between nations? What was covered in those treaties?
What national or local laws have an impact on—or should have an impact on—story events and characters? Do your laws match the era you’ve chosen for your story?
Are holidays actually holy days of religious celebration or are they national events or family celebrations? What holiday practices were observed by the characters of your era and setting?
What building materials, what fabrics and cloth, were available in your era? Would every character have access to all materials?
Was a man/family responsible for farming? What tools were available for farming? Do the farming practices of your characters fit the practices of the day?
Methods of travel/communication
How do characters of your story era get around? Are there several options to choose from? Does social class have an effect on transportation options?
Do you allow enough time for travel? Are characters inconvenienced by poor travel options?
What of the sounds/sights/smells of travel?
Consider the smell and sound and sway of horses or carriages pulled by horses. The noise of early autos. the smell of diesel. The motion of ships.
How do characters communicate? Have you chosen the most up-to-date communication options or the ones most likely to be used by your characters in their circumstances?
Include rites and social practices—fertility rites, quinceañera, bar mitzvah, graduation, and so forth. Such practices evolve with time, so be sure any details you include are appropriate for the era or date and the locale.
Wedding traditions vary from region to region and across times. Consider dress colors, the practice of giving away the bride, the bride price or dowry (which are not the same).
Are human bodies buried or burned? Thrown into the sea? Do funerals feature celebration or sorrow?
How were births noted in families and communities? Have you given a birth the emphasis people in your era would understand?
Do characters attend public schools or are they schooled at home? Is schooling a formal practice or do children learn as they go through their days? Are tutors popular in your era? Governesses?
Does your story era feature master/apprentice relationships?
Is education available to all or only to one class? Do characters accept the education available to them or do they strive for other opportunities?
Flowers and vegetation
What grows in your story world? Where does it grow? What flowers are in season during your story’s time? What trees are available in your region?
How is time measured and referenced in your era? What timepieces are available to your characters?
Is time even an issue for your characters or do they take events as they come?
What is time based on? Hours, seasons, events?
Is the populace split into social classes? Do characters recognize the classes? How does the social structure influence character thought and behavior?
What happens when characters from society without formal classes travels to a society with rigid social classes? What if a character travels from a class-conscious society to a more egalitarian society? Have you noted the trouble a character would have moving in or out of a society different from his own?
Obviously there are many, many details that can add authenticity to stories.
There are just as many setting details that can pull readers right out of the fiction you’ve so carefully crafted if those details don’t match the time and place of your story.
Check your facts. Don’t distract readers by including facts that don’t match the historical record or by writing characters or events that don’t make sense in terms of history or the practices of the day.
Put specific objects into the hands of your characters, but only objects that would have been available in your story’s place and time.
As is often the case, stories of time travel have a bit of leeway. Yet, you still want to account for facts or dates or objects that might seemingly be out of place.
NOTE: Make sure that what’s new or unfamiliar to you isn’t seemingly unfamiliar to your characters. That is, don’t make a big deal out of describing something that your characters are fully familiar with just to familiarize your readers with it or because you’ve learned all about some product or ancient practice.
If characters know how to use a bootjack, they just use it. There’s no reason to point out each step in a description to the reader.
Have fun with facts. But make sure they fit your story setting. Put words and sentiments of the era into the mouths of your characters. Have them think era-appropriate thoughts.
Give them objects and practices common to their day.
Steep your story and your readers in the reality of your setting.
Write convincing fiction and entertain your readers.